Lotus Pier was beautiful but muggy in summer, the air so thick and wet it felt like walking through a giant, steamy bathhouse. Mosquitoes swarmed in low clouds over the lotus lakes, the surrounding trees alive with the drone of cicadas. It was the kind of heat that no amount of fanning could alleviate; the only cure was to leap off the end of a dock and let the cool lakewater close over your head, lotus leaves bobbing on the surface like rafts in a stormy sea. When Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng were small, they used to compete to see who could jump the farthest. Jiang Yanli was always the judge, sometimes from the shore and sometimes from a boat and sometimes from the edge of the dock with her feet dangling in the water, a pink lotus blossom tucked into her hair.
The last time Wei Wuxian had swum in a lotus lake was the summer before he’d first attended lectures at the Cloud Recesses. Either eighteen or five years ago, depending on what counted. Either way a lifetime. He stood at the end of the dock now, the one he’d jumped off of a hundred times, and watched the mosquitoes hover over the lotus leaves, the water striders darting across the surface in fractal patterns as if tracing frost.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said in greeting, then turned around.
He’d sent word ahead that he’d be passing through Yunmeng. It had really just been a formality—I’ll be in the area for three days, I’ll not stray further than Yunping, don’t go on the warpath if someone reports seeing me—and he hadn’t expected to receive any sort of response. But a glowing purple butterfly had found him sleeping in an abandoned barn one night to deliver a message in Jiang Cheng’s tight, bitter voice: ‘Oh, so the great Wei Wuxian thinks too highly of himself to come pay his respects?’
So in the morning Wei Wuxian had pointed Little Apple toward Lotus Pier. And here he was, being glared at in a way that felt familiar for once. It was oddly comforting.
Jiang Cheng's mouth was pinched, arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing lighter, looser robes than the last time they’d seen each other; even Sandu Shengshou couldn’t stand the summer heat. Wei Wuxian used to tease him about that. You’re so hot-headed already, you better be careful! You’ll burst into flame!
Sandu hung at Jiang Cheng's hip, Zidian coiled around his finger. The sunlight glinted off his headpiece, piercing white.
Wei Wuxian bowed. “I’ve come to pay my respects," he said. Jiang Cheng scoffed, but didn't send him away.
They sat in a small wooden pavilion jutting out over the water. The wood was lighter in color than the pavilions Wei Wuxian remembered from his childhood, a few years of weathering versus two hundred. Jiang Cheng didn't say anything, so Wei Wuxian took it upon himself to fill the silence. He told Jiang Cheng about his most recent night hunt in the mountains of Henan, a case in which all the monks of the Song Mountain monastery had been hit with a strange curse: they looked normal but believed themselves to be young children of about five years old. Concerned villagers had led Wei Wuxian up to the monastery, where he'd found previously distinguished monks chasing each other through the gardens and the pagoda forest beyond, shrieking with laughter. He told Jiang Cheng about all of this, then about breaking the curse and explaining to fifty very confused monks what they’d been doing for the past week, and kept waiting for Jiang Cheng to interrupt—don't you ever stop talking, Wei Wuxian?—but Jiang Cheng just sat there, staring out over the lake. Maybe he wasn't even listening.
Then Wei Wuxian told him about the night after he’d broken the curse. He’d made his way back down the mountain to the village below, where he’d been greeted by—well, it had felt like half the damn village. They’d showered him with thanks and praise and flowers, herded him to the nearest tavern and bought him drinks all night, even when he kept insisting it wasn’t necessary.
“And it wasn’t the only time that kind of thing happened,” he said, frowning at his lap. A mosquito landed on the back of his hand and he brushed it away. “I swear, no matter where I go, everyone seems to know who I am and what I’m there for. One time one of the local officials recognized me in the market and invited me to dinner! You know I never turn down a free meal, but…. I don’t know, I’m beginning to think it’s because they’re scared of me. Of Yiling Laozu. I didn’t think anyone outside the cultivation world still knew what I looked like, but why else would they trip all over themselves to keep me happy?” He huffed a sigh. “Aiyo, but really Jiang Cheng, how does everyone recognize me all of a sudden? I’ve seen those sorry excuses for portraits of Yiling Laozu. They paint him like an ugly old ghoul, it’s terribly insulting.”
“You’re kidding, right?” said Jiang Cheng. It was the first thing he'd said since they had sat down.
Jiang Cheng stared at him. “How are you this dense,” he said flatly. “Wei Wuxian. The common people aren’t scared of you, they’re scared of your husband.”
“My what,” said Wei Wuxian.
“Everyone knows that if they don’t treat you like a precious little prince, Hanguang-jun will be on their doorstep within the hour calling for blood.”
“Sorry, go back to the part where—my husband?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes so hard it looked painful. “Don’t even try it with me, I know about you and Lan Wangji. I’d rather die than think about it, but come on. I’m not a fucking idiot.” The ‘unlike you’ was implied.
“No, I....” Wei Wuxian let out a slightly hysterical laugh, even though this wasn’t funny at all. His stomach felt weird. “There's been some sort of misunderstanding. Lan Zhan and I aren’t.... It’s not like that, between us.”
Jiang Cheng’s scowl deepened. “Wei Wuxian. I told you, I already know. There’s no use lying about it. I really couldn’t give less of a shit.”
“I’m not lying,” Wei Wuxian insisted. “I think I would know if I’d married Lan Zhan, wouldn’t I?”
“You were in the ancestral hall together,” Jiang Cheng said slowly. He was starting to look more confused than pissed off. “I caught you bowing in front of the altar.”
“We were paying our respects! Just like I’m doing right now, with this visit!”
“You disappeared for like a month after Guanyin Temple! Are you telling me that wasn’t an elopement?”
“No!” Wei Wuxian yelped. “No, we were just—” getting everything settled after the truth came out about Jin Guangyao, after Zewu-jun went into seclusion, after Lan Zhan accepted the title of Chief Cultivator. Getting everything settled. Getting up in the mornings, him at dawn and me an hour later, eating breakfast together, drinking tea, taking long meandering walks all over the mountain, bathing in the cold springs, eyes averted, playing music at the base of a thundering waterfall where froth met water, where sound met silence, where force and chaos met stillness and dissipated into ripples; we were taking our meals together whenever possible around Lan Zhan’s meetings, we were talking long into the evenings, sitting quietly in the Jingshi, he was brushing my hair, I was tying his ribbon, he was pouring my drinks, I was pouring his tea, I was watching his hands, I was drawing his portrait, committing him to memory, the length of his hair, the curve of his mouth and ears, the shape of his body in just the one sleeping robe, almost sheer; when he moved in front of the candle I could see his shadowy outline, the span of his shoulders, his thighs, his waist—
“Whatever you’re thinking about, stop,” said Jiang Cheng, disgusted.
Wei Wuxian cleared his throat. “We didn’t disappear, we were in the Cloud Recesses. There was a lot to take care of.”
“But you’ve been hanging off him like a limpet ever since you met! It’s embarrassing to be around!”
“We’re close friends,” Wei Wuxian said pathetically. “He’s my zhiji.”
“Gods,” said Jiang Cheng, so shocked he forgot to look angry for a moment. “You’re really not married, are you.”
“That’s what I keep—”
“So you’ve just been leading him on for—what, sixteen years? Seventeen?” Jiang Cheng shook his head. “That poor miserable bastard. I mean, it’s his fault for having terrible taste, but still.”
“I’m not leading him on!”
"What!" Jiang Cheng hissed. "Wei Wuxian! Is Hanguang-jun dishonoring you?"
Wei Wuxian's entire face flushed even hotter under the afternoon sun. “No, gods, we're not—we're not sleeping together. No one's honor is being corrupted, no one's virtue besmirched.”
Jiang Cheng gagged. “You could stand to sound a little less disappointed. I’m going to be sick. Why are we talking about this?"
"You’re the one who got all gossipy about my love life."
Neither of them spoke for a long moment. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and listened to the water lapping against the dock, the distant sound of young disciples shouting their way through sword practice—Horse stance, ha! Bow stance, ha! Cat stance, ha!—joined by cicada song and the occasional high, tinny buzz of a mosquito by his ear. He breathed in and the air smelled like lotus blossoms and hot algae, like being six years old with a wooden sword and seven years old with a real one, steel flashing in the sun, practicing his footwork out behind the kitchens, eyes watering from the meat-smoke, empty belly panging with every breath. No meals for three days, punishment for one thing or another. Going to bed hungry, waking up to Jiang Cheng’s little hand on his shoulder. I brought you a bun.
“...Wait,” said Wei Wuxian, eyes flying open. “‘Leading him on’? Jiang Cheng, do you think Lan Zhan likes me? I mean, that kind of like?”
“Get off my fucking property,” said Jiang Cheng. When Wei Wuxian didn’t move, he went for the hilt of his sword.
“Ai!” Wei Wuxian said, scrambling out of range. He vaulted right over the wooden railing of the pavilion, landing on the walkway below. “Alright, alright, I’m going! You and your temper, Jiang Cheng, you really haven’t changed a bit. I’ll tell Hanguang-jun you said hello!”
“DO NOT,” Jiang Cheng roared from behind him.
“I will! I’ll give him your best wishes!” Wei Wuxian called out of his shoulder, waving cheerily, then scurried along the pier to the shore, through the main courtyard and out of the front gates of Lotus Pier, not slowing down until he was in the woods beyond. It was just as hot even in the shade of the trees, the ground dappled with pale sunlight. He’d tied Little Apple to a sapling in a clearing not too far up ahead.
Wei Wuxian clutched at his heart.
He thought of the mornings he’d woken before Lan Zhan, wrenched out of a nightmare just as the sky turned the faintest twinge of gray. First when they were traveling and then during that in-between month in the Cloud Recesses. It happened a couple times a week. Most nights he could fall back asleep for another hour or so, others he just laid awake until Lan Zhan rose. Once, after a nightmare that left him shaking and cold with sweat, heart pulsing sickly in his throat, he’d gotten out of bed and padded silently across the Jingshi to the second room where Lan Zhan slept. He’d sat in the middle of the floor and tried to meditate, matching his breaths to Lan Zhan’s, and had woken an hour later to Lan Zhan settling beside him. Wei Wuxian had leaned into him, resting his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. And Lan Zhan had wrapped an arm around Wei Wuxian’s back and held him, even though he must not have been able to meditate at all.
A week later they’d parted on a mountaintop, the sky an overturned sea.
Wei Wuxian paused here in the hot, humid woods outside Lotus Pier, and thought, clear as the first mouthful of cool water, ‘I need to see him.’
I need to see him right now.
He picked up the pace again until he reached Little Apple. Without a sword, Gusu was at least a week’s journey away, and it would take another half-day to drag Little Apple all the way up into the Cloud Recesses. But gods, Wei Wuxian was shivering with anticipation, skin singing, heart a bell chiming in his ears, your husband, your husband, everyone knows, I know about you and Hanguang-jun, your husband, his zhiji, his—something. He needed to see Lan Zhan right now. Today, tonight, he couldn’t wait a week, Lan Zhan was just out there, in the Library Pavilion or the Elegance Room or down by the waterfall, reading a book, writing a letter, tending to his rabbits, and he didn’t even know Wei Wuxian wanted to marry him. How could he not know?
Wei Wuxian couldn’t wait a week.
“We’re going on an adventure,” he told Little Apple, scratching behind her ears, and untied a qiankun pouch from her saddlebags. He was going to need a lot of talisman paper.
The Cloud Recesses were pale as moonlight and just as silent. Wei Wuxian took only a brief detour to the stables to drop off Little Apple, who was fine but severely displeased with him after the events of the last few hours. Then he was racing along the spiraling white pathways of the Cloud Recesses, past the guest houses and the Elegance Room to the Jingshi on its shallow hill.
The windows of the Jingshi were lit yellow with candlelight, flickering shadows. Wei Wuxian didn’t hesitate, heart pounding, just ran across the white shell courtyard and kicked off his shoes and leapt up the porch steps and into the open doorway, socks sliding on the polished wood floor. “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Zhan was seated at the jaded table and already facing the doorway; he must have heard Wei Wuxian coming. His eyes were wide, one hand gripping a silk manuscript. A cup of tea steamed lightly at his elbow.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian gasped. “Jiang Cheng said you like me?”
For a moment Lan Zhan just stared. Then he appeared to register that Wei Wuxian really was 1. here, and 2. shouting at him, because he set the manuscript down in a manner that on anyone else would have been described as ‘tossing it aside.’ “Wei Ying,” he said, and made to get up, but Wei Wuxian didn’t let him. He flung himself across the room to kneel in front of Lan Zhan at the table, so close, knees almost touching, closer than they’d been in six long, lonely months. Lan Zhan smelled clean, floral and cedar, his hair still damp at the ends from his evening bath. No headpiece, just his forehead ribbon. He was still staring, dark eyes fixed on Wei Wuxian’s face.
Wei Wuxian swayed and nearly tipped over.
“Wei Ying!” said Lan Zhan, catching his shoulders. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah!” said Wei Wuxian. “Yeah, yes, I’m fine!” He shook his head to clear it. “Sorry, I sort of—ah, I’ll tell you later. Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan.” He couldn’t stop looking at Lan Zhan, drinking him in, the flush on his cheekbones, the loose fall of his sleeping robes. Wei Wuxian had seen him half-naked in the cold springs, the sunburst on his chest and the scarred expanse of his back, but…. There was something about him like this. Clothed but undone, untitled, no sword or guqin or silver, just Lan Zhan in white linen, wrist and collarbones and bare feet, so handsome in the candlelight. It was maddening. Kneeling before him, Wei Wuxian had the urge to light incense. To cut fruit and flowers, make an offering.
“Wei Ying,” said Lan Zhan. His thumb was stroking back and forth over the spot where Wei Wuxian’s clavicle met his shoulder. Absentminded, like maybe Lan Zhan wasn’t aware he was doing it. “Two weeks ago, you sent me a letter from Chang’an. You said you would be traveling around Henan for another few days. Then heading to Yunmeng.”
The unspoken question: How on earth are you here?
Wei Wuxian winced. “About that,” he said, and hoped Lan Zhan would interrupt him.
Lan Zhan did not. He waited, patient as ever. His hands were big and warm on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, the warmest thing in six months. He put the summer sun to shame.
“Ah....” Wei Wuxian started. “So.... this afternoon, I visited Lotus Pier.”
He saw it land: this afternoon. Lan Zhan’s brow furrowed.
“And I had a conversation with Jiang Cheng, and.” His heart was the wingbeat of a startled bird, taking flight. “Lan Zhan, are we married?”
Lan Zhan’s face went carefully blank, the crease between his eyebrows smoothing out. He opened his mouth to reply, then paused. “Wei Ying. You’re too pale. What is going on?” He leaned in closer. “Are you ill?”
Maybe he thought Wei Wuxian was delirious. Alright, there was no more avoiding it. “Not ill!” Wei Wuxian assured him quickly. “I’m just tired, I promise. You see, Lan Zhan, I might have conducted a bit of an experiment today.”
“An experiment," Lan Zhan repeated.
“I wanted to see you!” Wei Wuxian said. “I was at Lotus Pier and I talked to Jiang Cheng and he told me—and I was too far away, I couldn’t wait, Lan Zhan ah, do you know how slow my stupid donkey is?” He fumbled with the qiankun pouch at his waist, pulling out a handful of the talismans he’d designed earlier, in the sunlit woods, birdsong and sweltering heat, sweat trickling down his temples. Lan Zhan took the talismans, eyes lingering on Wei Wuxian’s face. “Before you freak out, just look at me. I’m totally fine, it worked just like I thought it would. Even Little Apple’s fine. I mean, she hated it, but she hates everything. And aren’t you glad I didn’t waste a week traveling across the whole damn country?”
Lan Zhan, who had been studying the talismans intently, looked up. “Wei Ying. ‘Thousand Li Spring’?”
“Just a simple improvement on what already exists,” Wei Wuxian said. “You know how normal portal talismans can only get you one li away? Two at most? And it’s so hard to control where you end up, and it’s always so exhausting that you can only do it once every few days without draining your core?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan said slowly. “So....”
“So I improved it,” said Wei Wuxian, grinning despite himself. He really was pleased with how the talisman circle had worked out. “‘Thousand Li Spring’ is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a spell that will transport the user to a specific location up to a thousand li away, as long as they can clearly picture that location in their mind. And Lan Zhan, it doesn’t even drain you. No matter what energy source you’re using, orthodox or otherwise.”
“Yunmeng is two thousand li away from Gusu,” Lan Zhan pointed out.
“Well, after it didn’t drain me the first time, I thought it couldn’t hurt to try again.”
Lan Zhan looked pained. “Wei Ying. No one in the history of cultivation has ever written a spell like this. You wrote it in an afternoon and tested it on yourself?”
“It sounds reckless when you put it like that,” said Wei Wuxian, pouting. One of Lan Zhan’s eyebrows raised a fraction. “Ah Lan Zhan, you can’t blame me, how can you blame me? I needed to see you. I couldn’t wait, not when there was a chance….” He trailed off, fidgeting with the hem of his robes. “Lan Zhan, we have to talk, but I think maybe I can’t look at you for it. I think—,” but Lan Zhan was already opening his arms. Wei Wuxian crawled into his lap immediately, his back against Lan Zhan’s chest and Lan Zhan’s arms around him, holding him close, chin resting on Wei Wuxian's shoulder. He was the only person with whom Wei Wuxian could feel surrounded, but not trapped.
“Tea,” said Lan Zhan, and let go of Wei Wuxian long enough to pour him a cup. “Steady yourself. Then we will talk.”
Wei Wuxian wrinkled his nose at the pale Gusu tea, but didn’t protest. He took the cup and breathed in the steam, the delicate herbal scent. “Jiang Cheng said you like me,” he said, almost a whisper.
Lan Zhan hummed. He petted Wei Wuxian’s hair, brushed a loose tendril away from his face and tucked it behind his ear. “In this matter,” he said, “Jiang Wanyin is correct.”
“You don’t sound very happy about it,” Wei Wuxian teased him, even as something between his ribs trembled and cracked open, spilling light. He took a sip of tea, not even noticing the taste.
“Hn,” said Lan Zhan. “As I said. In this matter.”
Wei Wuxian settled further into Lan Zhan’s chest. He hadn’t thought he was particularly tense, but now it was becoming clear that there were some muscles, some places inside him, that hadn’t relaxed for—six months, probably. “You’re funny,” he said, taking another sip of tea. “You’re so funny. I missed you so much.”
“I missed you,” Lan Zhan murmured, lips ghosting over Wei Wuxian's temple.
Outside, the bamboo grove rustled. It was cooler here in the Cloud Recesses, the mountain air thinner and less humid. Wei Wuxian briefly considered using Thousand Li Spring to visit Lotus Pier, bake in the heat until he couldn’t stand it, then transport himself directly to the cold springs for a shock of ice. He also considered the myriad of ways in which Thousand Li Spring could be used for warfare and decided to keep it the fuck to himself for now. He wondered if Lan Zhan was thinking the same thing: how all of Wei Wuxian’s inventions came with a dark side, the shadowed edge of the moon.
Lan Zhan brushed a kiss over Wei Wuxian’s ear.
Maybe not, then.
Minutes passed. Tea mostly finished and Lan Zhan’s hand gentle in his hair, Wei Wuxian shifted sideways in his lap, tucking his face into Lan Zhan’s neck. He nuzzled a little, nose and then lips brushing Lan Zhan’s soft, warm skin, the flutter of his pulse, and then he said very softly, “Lan Zhan. Will you marry me?”
He was close enough to hear Lan Zhan’s breath catch.
“Yes. I’ll marry you,” said Lan Zhan after a moment. Then, before Wei Wuxian could even start crying, he added, “...For the third time.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “The. The third time?”
Lan Zhan hummed against his forehead.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian wriggled in the circle of Lan Zhan’s arms until he was leaning back far enough to look at him. Lan Zhan’s expression was gentle, an amused smile playing at the corners of his mouth, but his eyes were bright with unshed tears. His ears were pink like plum blossoms at the tail end of winter, the beginning of spring. “Lan Zhan. I know we bowed in front of the Jiangs’ altar, but—what do you mean, the third time?”
“The Cold Pond Cave,” said Lan Zhan. “My forehead ribbon.”
“Your....” Wei Wuxian felt his eyes widen. “Oh, gods. Oh no. That was—noooooo,” he whined, diving back down to hide his face in Lan Zhan’s neck. “Oh fuck, Lan Zhan, I didn’t know.”
“Hand-fasting is only one step of a Lan wedding,” Lan Zhan told him, as if that were any consolation.
Wei Wuxian made a miserable noise. “I’m gonna go back in time and kick my own ass.”
“Please do not go back in time,” said Lan Zhan.
“You say that like I could actually do it.”
“If anyone could manage such a feat, it would be Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian laughed wetly, clinging to him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”
“No apologies between us,” Lan Zhan murmured. He ran a hand up and down Wei Wuxian’s spine, a trail of heat on a cool night.
“But you’ve been—waiting,” Wei Wuxian said. “Before, and when I was gone, and even after I came back I made you wait.”
“It was not waiting. No,” Lan Zhan said when Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to argue. “Listen to me. It was loving. Wanting, mourning, always loving. If you exist in this world, there is nothing to wait for. You are here.”
“I’m here,” Wei Wuxian said, maybe more to himself than Lan Zhan. “I’m here. I love you.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan gathered him somehow closer, one hand on the back of Wei Wuxian’s head, and kissed his shoulder, the shell of his ear, everywhere he could reach. They were holding each other so tight it felt impossible that they should ever separate, two red threads braided together, gripping each other’s robes, mouths pressed to skin, here in the candlelight and the quiet of the Jingshi, here in Lan Zhan’s home, where the door was always open to Wei Wuxian and the wards recognized the particular hum of his soul. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said again, and Wei Wuxian lifted his head and was kissed. Lan Zhan’s mouth was warm, still at first and then parting. The hand on the back of Wei Wuxian’s head shifted to cradle his jaw, fingers brushing the soft skin beneath his ear.
They kissed again, deeper. “Yours,” Wei Wuxian mumbled into the next kiss, and Lan Zhan took a shaky breath and said, “Yours. Yours, Wei Ying,” and Wei Wuxian pushed him gently until Lan Zhan was lowering himself onto his back on the wooden floor, Wei Wuxian sitting on top of him, thighs spread around his waist.
Wei Wuxian braced both hands on Lan Zhan’s chest and just—looked. Lan Zhan’s hair fanned out around his head like a great spill of ink, his chest rising and falling quicker than usual. He lifted his hands to rest on Wei Wuxian’s hips, holding him steady, one knee drawn up against Wei Wuxian’s back.
“My Lan Zhan,” said Wei Wuxian. “I’d marry you every day. I really would.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Yes,” he agreed, and reached up to curl his fingers into the front of Wei Ying’s robes. “Come here.”
Wei Wuxian did. He was met, as he would be in all the days to come, with a kiss.